When hundreds of Angelenos recently were asked a fairly open-ended question — "What do you think the most important issue facing the residents of L.A. is that you would like the city government to do something about?" — the most popular response was somewhat surprising.
"Traditionally, when you ask people in L.A. their top concerns, it’s things like traffic or crime," says Adam Murray, executive director of the Inner City Law Center.
But 19 percent of the 600 respondents said homelessness or poverty was their top concern; 12 percent said crime and police; and 11 percent said transportation and parking.
"There’s no doubt that homelessness is significantly higher than it’s been at any time that I can remember," Murray says of the poll, which was taken by United Way (and made public by L.A. City Council).
A similar poll, taken by the county, found that homelessness was the No. 2 issue, after jobs and the economy.
Homelessness is on the rise in nearly every major city throughout the United States. But that rise has been especially pronounced in Los Angeles, where encampments can be seen all over the city, seemingly under every bridge and freeway overpass. According to the latest homeless count, there are 47,000 men and women sleeping on streets and in shelters in L.A. County. That's a less than a 0.5 percent increase from the year before, though the city's homeless population increased 5 percent.
It's unclear exactly why homelessness continues to grow at such a rapid pace, though experts generally agree that the rising cost of housing is a significant factor.
“The only thing that makes people non-homeless is housing,” Gary Blasi, professor of law emeritus at UCLA, recently told KPCC. “Antipathy to development strangles the housing market.”
The L.A. City Council is weighing a bond measure that would raise between $1 billion and $2 billion to pay for housing and other services for the homeless. The measure must be approved by the full City Council before July 1 in order for it to be placed on the November ballot, where it will need two-thirds of L.A. voters' support.
When the United Way poll asked voters if they would support a $2 billion "homelessness/poverty reduction bond," 84 percent said yes. Another poll, provided to the Weekly by Murray, showed 74 percent support for a "$1 billion bond measure for homelessness and poverty reduction."
"There’s multiple polls," Murray says. "The voters want something done, and they're willing to pay for it. I think it’s important that we seize this opportunity. It’s pretty rare that you see voters saying, 'We’re willing to pay for this.'"
But will the homeless bond measure, which is effectively a delayed tax, be such a slam-dunk?
According to a survey by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, nearly a third of L.A. residents have worried about becoming homeless in the last few years. Nearly as many have worried about going hungry.
There are also a fair amount of people who feel empathy for the homeless and want to help them.
But there's a third group, and the fate of the bond measure may actually rest with them.
George Palaziol is one of the administrators of the Saving San Pedro Facebook group, where homelessness is a common topic. Members frequently post photographs of homeless encampments and individual homeless residents, with comments that are, shall we say, less than empathetic. For instance, Palaziol posted a photo of a man with a shopping cart getting arrested. "I've seen this guy all over Gaffey," Palaziol wrote. "When is he going to get real help?" One of the commenters wrote: "Jail jail jail!"
"We have people defecating, urinating, committing some sort of public crime or spectacle that shouldn’t be allowed," Palaziol says. "This kind of public behavior is not OK. If you’re going to do this stuff in public, you’re gonna get called out on it."
"It’s disturbing the way that a lot of people talk about homelessness," says Becky Dennison, executive director of Venice Community Housing. "It really harkens back to the ugly days of segregation, and fear of the perceived 'other.' Unfortunately, those messages pick up steam on blogs, and even well-meaning people are wondering if they should be scared by this."
Dennison has experienced neighborhood opposition to homeless services firsthand. Her group has been running a pilot program that provides homeless residents with locker space. Venice City Councilman Mike Bonin wanted the program expanded and proposed, as a site for the lockers, the now-vacant Westminster senior center.
But the Venice Stakeholders Association is threatening to sue over the plan. They say the conversion would violate the deed to the facility, which they claim can only be used for recreation. They've also said that they think the lockers will attract more homeless residents to Venice.
“Transients tend to want to stay near their stuff,” Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association, told KPCC. “It would only become worse with a storage facility.”
The desire to rid the homeless from one's neighborhood — out of sight, out of mind — could, however, actually help the homeless bond measure. Palaziol, for one, says he's in favor of it — "as long as it’s permanent supportive housing and comes tied with services, and maybe some sort of job training," he says, "something where they’re continually monitored, like weekly checkups."
"I’m all for permanent, supportive housing," he adds. "I want to spend our government money on something that's not going to go away in a year or two."
Murray says he's seen a lot of this kind of sentiment.
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"People come at this problem for different reasons, and [with] some of them it’s from a place of anger," he says. "But when you sit those folks down and ask, 'What would it mean to make it different?' people get that it means more housing and services. There’s a good bit of consensus about that."
Getting the money may actually be easier than figuring out how to spend it. Many people who vote for the measure may end up revolting if the city tries to put homeless services in their neighborhood.
"There’s a huge amount of NIMBYism," Murray says. "That’s a political battle we have to take head-on. This is too big of an issue to just have it dealt with in Skid Row. We need to have affordable housing in all communities throughout Los Angeles."
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that homelessness in L.A. County rose by 11 percent in the past year. It actually rose less than 0.5 percent in the county and 5 percent in the city.